Feeding the Media: The Indonesia Way

One of the hardest things for journalists is to pitch a story that does not fit into the ‘’breaking news’’ slot.  And this is not just the case in India. When it comes to health or any other development-related issue for that matter, fighting for news space is quite hard.

Take maternal mortality or poor health infrastructure in villages for instance. Huge concerns in India. Reports on these tend to get buried unless there is a shocking peg, like a pregnant woman dying on the streets because no hospital would admit her. And if this was to clash with, say the Indian cricket team’s return after some huge win, well forget about it.

How does one get around this? Here in Indonesia, the BkkbN, the government’s National Population and Family Planning Board, that has played a seminal role in curbing the country’s population growth, has a partnership with the local media. This, they say, has helped in two ways. One, the media has helped spread information about its various services to the provinces. Two, it gets feedback on what’s going wrong.  I can see a few eyebrows being raised here.  The media after all is meant to take on the government, question it, although one could perhaps do with more of that, at least in India.

Across many provinces, the BkkbN has set up the Family Planning Journalists Association, made up of local reporters who are given training in population and FP issues. Orientations help familiarize them with the various contraceptive methods and services provided by the state. The groups change every 4 years, and what’s important to note is that they are not on the BkkbN’s payroll.

‘’The media have played a big role in the FP program’s success,’’ says Siti Fatonah, Head, BkkbN West Java. West Java is one of the biggest provinces, its population contributing to 20% of Indonesia’s total. ‘’Putting the right kind of image forward was difficult for us. The media has helped. We get to know about field workers demanding payment for free services,” adds Fatonah.

But how free and frank is this partnership really, one can’t help but wonder.

‘’They do not interfere. They never stop us from writing negative stories. We often report on things that are going wrong,’’ says Sulhan Syafe, who heads the West Java FPJA.   What attracted him towards taking up the position?  ‘’After Suharto stepped down and democracy came to Indonesia, the media could write what it wanted.  But no one cared about FP related issues. I do this because I know journalists lack information and perspective about our FP program.  I have seen how farmers with 6-7 children struggle to feed their families and this issue is critical for Indonesia,’’ says Syalfe.

The government support, however, does not ensure that FP issues always get played up.  ‘’I have to fight, beg and plead with my editor to carry stories.  They are always willing to give space to politics and to stories about Lady Gaga’s concert being called off,’’ says Elly Burhaini Faizal, Correspondent with The Jakarta Post.

BkkbN credits its FP program’s success, to a large extent, to its partnership with the media. Something it needs to build on given the tremendous challenges that still lie ahead. Indonesia is the fourth most populous country in the world, and there is poor health infrastructure in the remote provinces.  One suggestion is that the government should perhaps widen its media partnership to include senior editors!

Lessons from Indonesia

It has the world’s largest Muslim population, yet Indonesia is widely regarded as the poster child of successful family planning.  A remarkable achievement, given that as recent as in the early 70’s, the average family size here was 5.6 births per woman. Today that stands at 2.3 and all this in a span of just over four decades. Indonesia’s approach has lessons for many, including India which at 2.73 births per woman is far from the Millennium Development Goal of 2.1.

The government here has done this through partnership with various stakeholders – community leaders, media, private health sector and more importantly religious leaders. Getting leaders from groups like the Muhammediya has been critical to the program’s success.  One of Indonesia’s oldest Faith Based Organizations, the Muhammadiya  was formed in November 1912 in Yogyakarta. It has leaders in all thirty three provinces in the country and supports key government initiatives in health and education.

“But doesn’t Islam discourage family planning”, I ask Dr Atikah M Zaki, Health and Social Coordinator of the Aisyiyah, the women’s wing of the Muhammediya group. “Islam is not against temporary methods,” Dr Zaki points out. “We encourage pills, IUD, injections and spacing. It is permanent methods like abortions and sterilizations that are not allowed.”

The group even counsels couples who are divided over FP. “When the wife wants to delay babies and the husband is opposed to it, our local leaders intervene and convince him,” says Dr Fifi Maghfirah.  In fact the Muhammediya was the first Islamic organization in the world to promote FP.  “In most Muslim countries there is no difference of opinion on temporary methods of contraception,” says Farahanaz Zahidi Moazzam, a freelance journalist and activist from Pakistan. “But the difference between Indonesia and other Muslim countries is that it is discussed openly here.  What is remarkable is that the organization is using religion to promote FP,” Moazzam adds.

It is a tactic that could work in India where family planning remains a sensitive topic. Bringing community leaders on board could help overcome reservations that decades of the government’s  ‘’Hum Do Hamare Do’’ (We are two, and we have two) campaigns have not.

Latur Notes

           We reached Latur on a Monday morning to find the entire city virtually shut down. At Hotel Manas where we had a booking, not a soul materialized for the first 30 minutes. Finally a man emerged, gave us our keys and shuffled off. Refusing, despite our several pleas, to serve up any tea. The kitchen staff, we were told, had the day off.
          Many hours later, a explanation. It was Velu Amavasya, a harvest festival, big in this part of Maharashtra.  A day farmers celebrate, first by praying to their fields and then, hosting a sumptuous lunch for the community.Everything shuts down – schools, colleges, offices. Never mind that Velu Amavasya figures nowhere in the list of official public holidays.
         Not the best start to our trip. But we decided to ahead with our visit to Hasegaon, to a shelter for HIV+ children. We were headed there for a documentary on community initiatives to fight stigma against people with HIV.
        Hasegaon had other plans. Minutes after we reached we were told we had to participate in the festivities. Our host for the afternoon, a farmer, 70 year old Kumbhkaran Gawde. An unusual name given the reverence the Hindu god Rama has in these parts. Kumbhkaran, for those unfamiliar with Indian mythology, was brother to Ravan, the demon king who abducted Rama’s wife, Sita. 
        Kumbhkaran was one of Ravan’s generals. Famous for his long, long naps and huge appetite. With his shocking pink turban and curved walking stick. this Kumbhkaran cut a rather imposing figure. He took us to his sugarcane fields, to this makeshift shrine. We paid our respects and started digging into the thali. A simple, but varied spread as you can see in this picture
       There was the Pitle, traditional dish made of gram flour, a side dish of spring onions and Unde, which are steamed dumplings made of jowar (type of cereal). Followed by the piece de resistance, khichda. Not the mutton and dal version many of us are familiar with. This was vegetarian, prepared with two different cereals.  Very simple and light food, but the whole experience of eating in the midst of the fields was quite something.
       To round it off, we had something akin to the sakhrai pongal, a traditional Tamilian dish served during festive occasions. Here, the rice is cooked in sugarcane jaggery instead of sugar, and the milk poured on the rice just before it’s eaten. Unlike Sakhrai pongal which is cooked in milk.
       As we drove out of Hasegaon, villagers stopped us at different points to invite us to their homes. Really heartwarming. We remembered them even more later that evening. Because back in Latur city, not a single hotel was open for dinner!